Tuesday, August 5, 2008

More about the Venice Bistrot

Last week, I sat down with Sergio Fragiacomo, the owner of Bistrot de Venise, to see if we could up with a "Venetian Cat" menu for my readers (if you haven't already read the first blog about the Bistrot, please have a look at that first: http://venetiancat.blogspot.com/2008/03/le-bistrot-de-venise.html

First, I want to stress what a wonderful human being Sergio is. I have met many, many people in Venice, and Sergio's qualities stand out -- he has genuine passion and compassion. Several people came by during our meeting, and he graciously balanced everyone's needs.

Sergio is as enthusiastic about the ancient Venetian dishes as he was when I first met him six years ago. Let's go through the current (it changes by the season) Historic Venetian Cuisine Sampling Menu together, which is a fixed price of 68 euro, plus 12% tax. (Sergio said he would wave the 12% to anyone who mentioned they read about it on my blog, which will save you about 8 euro:) That price does not include wine, and it might sound a tad pricey, but by the end of our meeting, I understood better the great amount of effort involved.

One thing to remember about Venice is that it was an oligarchy, ruled by a group of very wealthy aristocrats who were in constant competition with each other. If one built a palace, another had to build an even bigger and more elaborate palace. The same with food. Venice was the spice capital of the world, importing exotic discoveries brought back from sea voyages. If you were wealthy, well, you just had to get your hands on some cinnamon and cloves and have a bunch of people over to show off what you had scored.

It is not possible to exactly duplicate all the recipes because not all the ingredients exist today. For example, one ingredient, agresto, which would be comparable to a type of vinegar, was made from a particular grape that was wiped out. Ingredients like agresto, lemon, orange, etc., were used to give the food a longer life and prevent bacteria.

Now, let's take a trip back into time, about 700 years ago...

The menu starts with a 14th century dish called, Torta de Gambari, which has been translated to Lukewarm pie with prawns and raisins. It is not really a pie, it is more like a little bird's nest made from crunchy pasta, so maybe a better English name would be Nest of Prawns & Raisins. This particular recipe was found in a cookbook, Libro per Cuoco ("Book for Cooking"), that dates back to the 1300s by Anonimo Veneziano, or "Anonymous Venetian," which is in the Casanatense library in Rome. Thanks goes to Marcello Brusegan, author of La Cucina Venezia, who was the historic and culinary consultant for Le Bistrot.

Next is Scampi in Saor, also from Anonimo Veneziano, which is scampi with sweet and sour stewed onions, almonds, Turkish grapes and spices. Perhaps more well known is Sarde in Saor, or sardines in saor. I would describe the Scampi in Saor as an elegant form of that typical Venetian sardine dish that can be found today throughout the city. In the Old Days, Venetians marinated the fish in vinegar (probably agresto:), salt and onions because fishermen and sailors could keep the food on board for long periods of time. The onions are rich in Vitamin C, which kept everybody healthy. (When Marcello Brusegan was researching the ancient recipes, he discovered that sarde in soar originated from an even earlier dish called cisame de pesse, which translates to "cut pieces of fish" -- a little piece of trivia that even most Venetians are not aware of.)

The menu then offers a choice of Bramager, an old-fashioned white soup with rice flour, chicken and almond stew flavored with cloves and pomegranate, which was eaten to soothe the stomach, OR Maccaroni de cascio e sucha (deti gnochi) in Tredura de Agnelo, which are pumpkin and fresh cheese dumplings with mixed lamb and leeks.

The next offering is from Maestro Martino, who was the personal chef to the “Most Reverend Monsignor Camorlengo and Patriarch of Aquileia” back in the 1400s. That means he was cooking for the Patriarch, and then the Patriarch was not in Venice, where he is today (I just saw the current Patriarch, Cardinal Angelo Scola, on Good Friday when they brought out the ancient icons from Constantinople over at the Basilica for the first time in 40 years -- icons such as a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, and the Relic of the Holy Nail. And I saw the Pala D'oro on Easter Sunday! Let's have a look at the splendor of this precious Byzantine icon because I love it so much; it illustrates what kind of people were so concerned about the elegance of their food -- the same people who cherished this icon.)

Maestro Martino was also the author of the Libro de Arte Coquinaria ("Book of Culinary Art"), and you can taste his Storione in Sapor de Uva e Agliata Gialla, or marinated sturgeon in a black grape sauce, with yellow garlic and almond pudding. So, you can actually sample the same food that the Patriarch was eating 600 years ago! (Updated, of course, to the 21st century.)

OR you can choose Manzare de Pomo bono et perfecto, another 14th century dish from Anonimo Venziano -- veal cheeks stewed with wild apples and sweet spices.

Okay, after all that, we have dessert. Right now, the choices are both from the 14th century: Tortin de Risi a la Turchesca, old-fashioned rice and candied fruit, sweet spices and aromatic fire. I am reading that off the menu. Doesn't that sound wonderful? "Aromatic fire?" OR you can choose Mandolata cocta e perfecta, almond pudding with candied orange, crunchy macaroon sauce.

Now, onto the wine. Le Bistrot's wine list goes on forever, and has won many prestigious awards, such as La Carta delle Carte Ambasciatore del Vino given by the Enoteca Italiana -- that means they consider it one of the 30 best Italian wine lists -- and is in the 2008 Michelin Red Guide. When you flip through the list, you can see just how obsessed Sergio is with uncovering offerings that no one else has found. I will copy the introduction, which is their own translation, but is so charming, I will leave it as it is:

"The Bistrot de Venise Wine List is a true Guide to minor and rare varieties of Veneto and Friuli wine plants. Our deep and accurate research discovered some very unique gems of the past wine tradition. For the other Italian regions it has been realized by consulting some of the most prestigious wine guide books and reviews, both Italian and international (such as Gambero Rosso, Luca Maroni, Slow Food, Veronelli, Wine Spectator, Grand Gourmet), and, with a commission of three professional wine tasters, in order to provide a wide selection of small Italian wine producers, which includes top wines together with high quality price-range wines."

For example, Sergio told me about a rare wine he had discovered called "Turchetta." He found one family making it down by Rovigo and drove there and brought it back himself. The labels didn't even list the alcohol content, so Sergio wrote out another label and stuck it on the bottle, together with the original label. Do you see what I mean about his passion? He absolutely loves his restaurant and his work, and is determined that others understand the history behind the food, and will go to the ends of the earth to find a rare wine. That is priceless, to have such a human touch, and the human touch is what you are paying for.

In addition, there are poetry readings, book launches, artist exhibitions, etc. in the back room. Here is what is coming up on April 8th:


'If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I had to explain it to someone who asked me, I wouldn't know.' --- Saint Augustine on the concept of time

Time is the dimension in which the passing of events is conceived and measured. All events can be described in a time that can be past, present and future. The complexity of the concept has always been the subject of philosophic and scientific reflection on the part of man... The poets invited will give voice to their thoughts."

Hopefully, you will understand Le Bistrot a little better now. On a separate blog, I will post the Venetian Cat Lunch Menu that Sergio and I came up with after someone on the Italy Magazine Forum asked me about where to eat for two for about 75 euro, including wine.

Ciao from Venice,

Venetian Cat - Venice Bistrot - Historic Lunch Menu for Two


Le Bistrot de Venise

Lunch Menu for Two

70 euro, all inclusive


Nido de Gambari - Nest of Prawns & Raisins. From the Anomino Veneziano (Anonymous Venetian) 14th century cookbook, a crunchy pasta "nest" filled prawns, raisins and grapes, seasoned with fresh orange juice and lightly spiced.


Risotto con codornices - Risotto with quail
. From an 18th century Comedy by the playwright, Carlo Goldoni.


Risotto mantecato di zucca con scampi e julienne di zucchine - Pumpkin Risotto with scampi tails and zucchini (which may be substituted with seasonal vegetables)

(Did you ever wonder why risotto is cooked for two? It's because it takes all of one cook's effort for about 15 minutes, from the preparation to the constant stirring)


According to the season

Example: Cioccolato de Culo coi Pevarini e Zaleti - Spiced chocolate wtih traditional white pepper & corn biscuits -
from the time of Goldoni, 18th century

Glass of House Wine and Mineral Water included

Le Bistrot de Venise

The other day, I was heading to the gym when I stopped short. There, on the Riva in front of my house, was my former editor from the International Herald Tribune-Italy Daily, Claudio, and his wife, Gail. They hadn't been to Venice for four years, and they didn't tell me they were coming. On their own, they booked themselves into the Antica Locanda Sturion, a small hotel that I had recommended four years ago, which is in the next calle.

I adore Claudio; he was a joy to work with. The way I ended up working directly with him is that the local editor in Milano changed one of my sentences without my knowledge -- and what he added was not correct. I emailed the editor in New York City, who was Claudio. I told him: "I am very anal, and if I put my name on something, that means I am responsible for every period, every comma. No one can change my words without my permission even if that means I don't work for your newspaper anymore." Claudio said, "I like anal people, and now I want you to work for me on a regular basis." Claudio is about the most honorable man you will ever meet, so much so that even his wife says he's too pure.

With all that in mind, I had written an article about Bistrot de Venise way back in 2002. My job in those days was to find unique Venetian things that no one had really written about before. I didn't usually write about restaurants except for brief blurbs, but I decided to write an entire sidebar on Le Bistrot -- what fascinated me was the passion of the owner, Sergio Fragiacomo (that's Sergio's gorgeous son, Paolo, in the photo). He had a dream about bringing back ancient Venetian recipes, and I was one of the first people who understood and believed in his dream.

After the article came out, Sergio kept asking me to come in for dinner, but because we were so pure, we never took perks:) But now that I am no longer working for the newspaper, I really wanted to take Sergio up on his offer, and Claudio and Gail were the perfect people to bring to the dinner -- especially because Sergio and his partners also own the Antica Locanda Sturion! Sergio is another wonderful man, and I adore him, too, so this seemed like a perfect dinner, which it was. The food was excellent. I warned Claudio and Gail that it might taste unusual, but we all relished the dinner, which was prepared that night by the second chef, Massimiliano Andrioci (the head chef is Mario Missoso).

Now I am going to post the article that I wrote in 2002:

Le Bistrot de Venise by Cat Bauer

Seven hundred years ago, the cuisine of noble Venetians was among the first to be flavored with exotic spices from the East. The Rialto market was the world's leading spice emporium, selling seasonings imported by Venetian merchants after long sea voyages to foreign lands. Dishes were prepared to show off the wealth of the hosts, and spices such as pepper, saffron, cinnamon and cloves became status symbols.

Today, it is possible to experience this ancient cuisine, thanks to the efforts of Sergio Fragiacomo, owner of Le Bistrot de Venise. "We started out with the concept of a French literary café, which is why it's called Le Bistrot," said Mr. Fragiacomo. "I wanted a place where local artists and writers could exchange ideas. Then, in the year 2000, we made a big change. In addition to the literary café, I got together with Marcello Brusegan (note from Cat: years later, his sister turned out to be one of my best friends!), an expert on ancient gastronomy, who does research at the Marciana Library here in Venice. We became aware of a 14-century manuscript, now in Rome, which was a book of gastronomy by an anonymous Venetian. We decided to resurrect the ancient recipes."

"I was warned it would be difficult at first -- there would be no spaghetti, no tomatoes. The tomato didn't arrive in the Venetian kitchen until relatively recently, about the 19th century. But I wanted to propose something new and original, a deeper understanding of Venetian gastronomy. There are reasons behind all the food."

Mr. Fragiacomo believes that the history of Venetian cuisine reflects the history of the city itself. "In the beginning, everything was based on the available food from the lagoon, so there was mostly fish, vegetables from the local islands and wild birds. No beef. When Venice moved its attention to the mainland at the end of the 16th century, new products started appearing, such as beans and potatoes. By the 17th and 18th centuries, rice was cultivated, which became extremely important in the entire Veneto region and remains so today. Venice was also the center of the publishing industry (note from Cat: do you see why I long for those days?), so texts are available regarding the cuisine of the time. There is another book we use by Maestro Martino da Corno, who was a man of letters, as well as a chef, and cooked for the aristocracy in the north of Italy in the 15th century. All these things make sampling the historical cuisine like taking an itinerary into the past."

Featured is ambroyno bono et perfecto: stuffed chicken with prunes, dates, almond's milk and spices, made from a 14th-century recipe. Another favorite is the 16th-century macaroni co la suca baruca: handmade gnocchi with cheese and almonds in a pumpkin sauce. Le Bistrot is also proud of their award-winning wine list, which has a fine selection of local Veneto wines not found on most menus.

Back now in the present, the dinner we enjoyed started with scampi in saor (shrimp with onions) and a bottle of very fine Malvasia wine. I won't describe the entire dinner, except to say it is something magical to eat ancient recipes. One of the desserts was ciocco culo, and if you can understand what that means, you really will appreciate ancient Venetian humor, which hasn't changed a bit over the centuries!

For those of you who are not adventurous eaters, Sergio also offers traditional dishes, and Le Bistrot stays open late, until 1 a.m., and doubles as a cultural center, offering poetry readings, art exhibitions and conversations with local authors.

Le Bistrot de Venise
Calle dei Fabbri 4685
San Marco
Tel. 041-5236651
email: info@bistrotdevenise.com